The same questing intelligence that earned Elizabeth Streb a MacArthur “genius” award five years ago made her sit up and notice the difference between the downtown dance world and “show business.” In developing a troupe of hard-bodied gymnasts and acrobats who perform at arts festivals and sports stadiums around the world, has she crossed over to the dark side? Maybe she’s just being practical, divining the gulf between the mass audience and the avant-garde sensibility and deciding to swim in it.
Swimming, track and field, gymnastics, boot camp, circus arts, Evel Knievel, and old-time slapstick comedy all inform the action in Streb Go!, which unpacked its box truss — a custom-designed apparatus that fits in a shipping container and enables her troupe to dispense with theaters entirely — at the Joyce last week, settling in for a good run. From Merce Cunningham Streb learned the importance of timing, detaching dance from music but keeping the rhythmic force necessary to get from here to there while maintaining an edge of danger. Wearing black-and-gray unitards in the first act and bright primary colors in the second, the men and women of the company are perfectly placed to satisfy the country’s current obsession with bodybuilding, weight lifting, and other hedges against old age and death.
The fast-paced evening consists of 20 brief vignettes introduced by savvy slide projections and snappy commentary from Laura Flanders that places the daredevil performers in their historical context. The noise level can be earsplitting: DJ David Bivins scratches platters in the orchestra pit; sound designer Miles Green amplifies the sounds of impact as the eight high-fliers crash into walls and mats and rebound from trampolines to platforms. (Streb, now 52, makes witty cameo appearances.)
My intern Sylvaine calls Streb Go! the anti-dance, which it well may be, but it’s certainly satisfying at a visceral level. Engines hoist a trestle up and down, giving the performers a perch from which to fling themselves into a padded void. Black belts, chains, and mirrored panels add a frisson of s/m to what is otherwise a bouncy display. Various numbers take off from Busby Berkeley and synchronized swimming routines or frat-style pranks, like piling eight bodies into a coffin-sized aquarium. Most of these are stunts rather than fully developed expressions (whatever that means), but the pace keeps us so giddy that we really don’t care.
If you’ve been following the troupe for the past couple of decades, you’ve seen a lot of this stuff before, but never so well performed. Longtime member Terry Dean Bartlett has a couple of his own creations on the bill; in his dazzling “Spin” he dangles from a grappling hook and uses his astonishingly powerful abs and arms to turn himself upside down, providing one of the evening’s few lyrical moments. Circumstances have placed Streb in the vanguard of the country’s new commitment to manifesting strength and readiness. Is it art? Is it sport? Doesn’t matter: It’s what we need now.
A gentler but equally sly intelligence informs Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham’s From the Horse’s Mouth, which offered an all-Tisch installment late in May at the Fifth Floor Theater. This four-year-old idea, which has now been seen in 13 versions around the country, seems truly evergreen: Ask dancers to prepare a short monologue about their lives in the art form (or let them sing a song) and send them onstage in groups of four, with one talking while the others improvise movement in whatever style they know, separately and together. Intersperse these linked moments with processions of the dancers in costumes of their own choosing.
Watching the Tisch faculty and alums — members of a single team, as it were, but manifesting many different facets of dance — I realized that a secret of the score’s success is the way it gives the audience what the sports universe has always offered: up-close and personal glimpses of the performers, a chance to hear their voices, to understand and identify with their motives and stories. Talk is almost as big a part of a sports event as the actions on the court. It’s usually missing from the dance stage, or badly handled when it’s there. Kudos to these artists for daring to open up and tell all.
Word comes over the Internet that the good burghers of Frankfurt, Germany, have decided to close down William Forsythe’s world-class avant-garde troupe, Ballett Frankfurt, and replace it with a company that performs “story ballets.” If this development alarms you, consider addressing a letter of protest to Frau Petra Roth, Mayor, City of Frankfurt.